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Justice Secretary David Gauke to Scrap Short Prison Sentences

Justice Secretary David Gauke to Scrap Short Prison Sentences

UK prisons and sentancing

Justice Secretary David Gauke has suggested that prison sentences of fewer than six months should be abolished, saying that short sentences have proven “ineffective” in preventing crime.

Speaking in London, Mr. Gauke said: “There is a very strong case to abolish sentences of six months or less altogether, with some closely defined exceptions, and put in their place a robust community order regime.”

The Justice Secretary noted that the UK now has one of the highest incarceration rates in western Europe, with sentences getting longer whilst reoffending rates nevertheless remain “stubbornly high.” 139 out of every 100,000 people in the UK are incarcerated – compared to 76 in Germany and 104 in France – with increasing violence in prisons leading many to call for a reduced inmate population.

“I think now is the time for us as a society, as a country, to start a fresh conversation, a national debate about what justice, including punishment, should look like for our modern times,” Mr. Gauke added.

UK prison population is rising

The UK’s current prison population of 83,000 has nearly doubled since the early 1990s, in part due to a gradual increase in the average length of custodial sentences. The average prison sentence for fraud, for example, has increased from just under twelve months to more than eighteen months in the last ten years alone.

Meanwhile, government austerity measures have led to significant staff cuts amongst prison governors, leading to over-crowded facilities and record levels of staff assaults and drug-taking in prisons.

Mr Gauke’s proposals to reduce the prison population have been welcomed by many in the charity sector, with Frances Cook, head of the Howard League for Penal Reform, calling his announcement “the most optimistic and principled speech by a Justice Secretary for a long time.”

Peter Dawson of the Prison Reform Trust similarly praised Mr Gauke’s “thoughtful and balanced” approach to incarceration and sentences. Some however have expressed doubt regarding the efficacy of community orders, with MP Philip Davies stating:

“In virtually every case the offender has been given community sentence after community sentence – so to give them community sentences instead [of jail time] is bonkers.”

New GPS monitoring scheme to track offenders

In order to render community sentences more effective and boost the confidence of the courts in handing out community orders, the Justice Secretary also proposed using GPS technology to monitor offenders who are not incarcerated.

The reform will see thousands of criminals being tracked by satellite with GPS tags, which provide 24/7 location monitoring of offenders in the community. Set to start in April, the surveillance scheme is designed to protect potential victims as well as support the need for an alternative to short prison sentences. Ministry of Justice officials say that the new technology’s applications could be particularly helpful preventing repeat offences in rape, domestic abuse, or stalking cases.

The Justice Secretary meanwhile affirmed his “confiden[ce] that this important new technology will become a vital tool to increase public protection and strengthen options for tougher community sentences.”

Technology could also be used to restrict and monitor the spending of wealthy criminals such as white-collar fraudsters after their release from prison.

Speaking about these plans, Mr. Gauke said:

“I want to look at how, once a jail term has been served, we can continue to restrict their expenditure and monitor their earnings, using new technology to enable proper enforcement.”

He added: “[This] will enable us to impose an unprecedented level of punitive sanctions outside of prison, with punishment hitting closer to home and hitting criminals where it always hurts – the pocket.”

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(Image attribution: Roger Cornfoot)